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More Thoughts on Charter Punditry & Declarations of Certainty

I’m a little late in pouncing on this one. JerseyJazzMan beat me to the punch with some relevant points.  A short while back, the Wall Street Journal posted an op-ed by Deborah Kenny, CEO of New York based charter chain Harlem Village AcademiesKenny’s op-ed purported to explain why charter schools are successful.  Of course, we could spend all day on that contention alone, since it is relatively well understood that charter results have been mixed at best. Indeed, I have explained in my published work and in blog posts that the track record for certain charter chains and in certain settings seems stronger than in others.

Here is how Deborah Kenny explained why charters succeed (implicitly where traditional public schools do not):

Critics claim that charter schools are successful only because they cherry-pick students, because they have smaller class sizes, or because motivated parents apply for charter lotteries and non-motivated parents do not. And even if charters are successful, they argue, there is no way to scale that success to reform a large district.

None of that is true. Charters succeed because of their two defining characteristics—accountability and freedom. In exchange for being held accountable for student achievement results, charter schools are generally free from bureaucratic and union rules that prevent principals from hiring, firing or evaluating their own teams.

As is par for the course of late in such arguments, Kenny’s chartery punditry is completely void of any data or contextual information that might provide insights as to why, or even whether charter schools “succeed.” Yet, while bafflingly void of substantiation, Kenny’s punditry is disturbingly decisive & hyper-confident.

It is yet another case of declaring to know absolutely what we absolutely don’t know!

For the moment, let’s accept Kenny’s proposition that at least in New York City, many charter schools affiliated with high profile management organizations have posted solid test scores (not entirely the case… but let’s accept that proposition…).

So then, let’s compare New York City charter schools from these CMO chains to traditional public schools in the city on a handful key parameters – a) how much they spend and b) which kids they serve – each relative to the schools which they supposedly far outshine.  These are things that actually matter. Now… if they do spend the same as NYC traditional public schools and serve similar student populations, we might be able to make the case that their “success” is a function of something different that they are doing with the same dollar – more bang for the buck. A relevant question… but a hard one to distill. But, if they serve very different student populations, then it’s even harder to distill what the heck is really going on.[1]

Further, if they are outspending NYC public schools that do serve similar populations, their access to resources may be what allows them to do different stuff… which may then explain their supposed “success.”  It would certainly be hard to make the above claims without looking at any of this, wouldn’t it?

So, here’s the stat sheet:

For each of these comparisons I have used a three year panel of data on NYC Charters schools and all NYC traditional public schools, from 2008 to 2010. To compare spending, I have used the estimates generated in our recent report on charter school spending:

  • Baker, B.D., Libby, K., & Wiley, K. (2012). Spending by the Major Charter Management Organizations: Comparing charter school and local public district financial resources in New York, Ohio, and Texas. Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center. Retrieved [date] from

Further discussion of the spending comparisons for NYC can be found here:

In short, each of these charter chains spends more per pupil than NYC public schools that serve similar student populations. Some, like KIPP and UnCommon schools spend a lot more!

Further, when compared against same grade level schools citywide, each of these charter chains serves fewer children with disabilities (and I lack data on the type of disabilities, which may also matter).

Finally, when compared against same grade level schools in the same zip code, each of these charter chains serves far fewer low income children and FAR fewer children with limited English language proficiency.

These substantive differences in resources and student populations make it difficult if not impossible to assert that these charter school chains operating in New York City have somehow identified a magic formula for success that is neither resource dependent nor dependent on serving very different student populations than city district schools.

There is certainly no basis whatsoever for asserting that accountability and freedom – specifically freedom from bureaucratic and union rules – are necessarily the determinants of charter success. In fact, these broad principles apply similarly to all independent charters, but while some are good, others suck – and many are allowed to persistently suck despite supposed heightened accountability. Indeed, the upper half is better than average! And the lower half… is not!

It’s hard to suggest that either of these factors – accountability or freedom – are the determinants of charter success when success varies so widely across charters. What does tend to vary across charters is a) access to philanthropic resources and b) student populations served. AND… it may also be the case that some charters have adopted unique strategies…… some of which may actually come with additional costs!

There may be some cool stuff going on in some of these schools, just as there may be some cool stuff going on in NYC district schools.  It may well be that freedom from bureaucratic rules permits schools to do cool stuff.  It would certainly seem advantageous in the context of New York State moving forward to be able to skip out on complying with new, ill-conceived teacher evaluation legislation.

We need to figure out what works and for whom, whether those ideas come from traditional public schools, charter schools or private schools.

We need to figure out the costs of doing these things. Ken Libby, Kathryn Wiley and I discuss these issuesin our recent policy brief (read it! It’s not some anti-charter propaganda. It’s an actual study of spending data… with detailed documentation & extensive lit review).

Unfortunately, the tendency among charter “defenders” is to simply deny, denydeny… ignore costs (makebizarre, unfounded excuses, present half-assed, back of the napkin estimates, or sidestep them)… ignore substantive contextual issues, etc., etc., etc. (certainly, the tendency among the attackers is to declare all charter operators/supporters to be union-busting privatizing profiteers – also an unhelpful characterization for a diverse array of institutions).

It’s time to start digging deeper into what makes schools tick and for whom and how to provide the mix of schooling that best serves the largest share of children.


[1] As I explained in a recent post, even in a lottery study – of students lotteried in/lotteried out – those lotteried out likely attend schools with substantively different classroom peers than those lotteried in, and it remains difficult if not impossible to distill school/teacher effect from peer effect since both operate at the classroom level.

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Bruce D. Baker

Bruce D. Baker is a Professor in the Graduate School of Education at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, where he teaches courses in school finance polic...